The Christian Heritage Centre


A Theology of the Family

22nd December 2022

A Theology of the Family: The Strange Case of the Bare Feet

Stefan Kaminski
Perugino - Adoration of he Magi
Perugino's Adoration of the Magi, in Citta' delle Pieve, Italy

Perugino’s Adoration of the Magi in Citta’ delle Pieve, Italy (as opposed to the one in Perugia) contains a curious detail which is easily overlooked at first glance. In the dim light of the small Oratory that houses this painting, the vibrant colours of the principal figures in the foreground pop out and create an almost 3D effect. The observer’s gaze is drawn across the breadth of the painting by the various garments of the ten or so persons that flank the child Jesus in the centre. One is conscious of the depth and activity that stretches away behind this first row of figures, but the colours readily draw the eye back to the primary scene. It is not easy for the eye to then drop down to the protagonists’ feet, which are very much where you expect them to be. By virtue of their sensibly-coloured footwear, they do not demand any particular attention: that is, until one notices that the feet of some of these important people are bare.

The feet that have most obviously exposed themselves to the elements are those of Mary and Joseph. Perhaps a nod to their humble state, in view of the bare-footed shepherds that hover in the background, and in contrast to the calced extremities of their noble visitors? The homogeneity of the garments across this front row of figures would suggest not. Closer examination reveals that one more of these principal figures is also bare-footed: the bearded gentlemen at the far right. Why should he not have worn some sandals on this visit?

If, by some astute observation (or perhaps at the prompt of a helpful guide), one compares this man with the discalced Holy Family, and then particularly with the figure of Joseph, one starts to notice some strange similarities: a perfect parallel in bodily posture, from the angle of the head down to the distribution of weight and position of the feet; an identical facial profile and features; a reflection of each other’s expression. The only distinguishing feature, other than the colour of the garments, is that the man’s beard is much fuller and longer, and is distinctly double-stranded.

The only clue that can be claimed with certainty is that this particular beard is clearly used by Perugino in other of his paintings on the figure of God the Father. If we are to suppose, then, that Perugino did indeed intend this figure as the Heavenly Father, one can also note the gold girdle around his waist – typically depicting sovereignty or royalty – and the celestial blue of his undergarment – a classical indicator of a spiritual being.

This striking relation between the figures of Joseph and God the Father immediately calls to mind St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (3:14-15). The painting appears to express precisely this: Jesus’ foster-faster, Joseph, is shadowed by the real Father, who manifests His presence discreetly in the background and at the same time somehow lends authority to the figure of Joseph. Joseph’s persona thus takes on a fuller sense when one realises that his fatherhood, though temporal, is exercised in the name of the Father.

Joseph, who plays such a strong, yet silent role before and through the infancy of Jesus, quietly disappears from the Gospels as the Christ emerges into the maturity of His humanity and the fullness of His divine mission. Yet his presence is a reminder that God the Son was not born into some extraordinary situation, even if His Incarnation was an extraordinary event. The Divine Saviour was inserted into the ordinary and regular pattern of the nuclear family – father and mother – surrounded by their extended family and relations.

Given the non-biological nature of Joseph’s fatherhood, one might ask whether there is any deeper meaning to his role than simply that of fostering the child and providing stability and support to the mother. Perugino, if we have interpreted his painting correctly, seems to very much think there is. And indeed, more authoritative support comes from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Their long genealogies trace Jesus’ ancestry through each generation from Adam through to Joseph, passing through the lineage of Abraham and his Israelite descendants, encompassing kings and prostitutes alike.

Fans of Tolkien will be all-too-familiar with those long pages in The Lord of the Rings that are preoccupied with tracing the lineage of Frodo Baggins, Aragorn or one of the Dwarves. Indeed, ancestry is an absolutely critical part of all Tolkien’s writings that tell the story of his fantasy world, beginning with its creation, as told in the Silmarillion, through several epochs until the ‘redemption’ of Middle-Earth with the defeat of Sauron and the destruction of the Ring of Power.

In his mythical vision of reality, Tolkien merely reflects what is divinely and humanly true; namely, that the human person is not an isolated ego, a self-defined construct, or a morally-autonomous being. The human person has an origin and a destiny, is given their existence and context, and is called to act for the concrete good of his neighbours.

Thus, at a legal and social level, Joseph’s importance is in providing Jesus with a crucial part of His human ‘identity’, through which He is inserted into a chain of parents and progeny. This is deliberately traced right back to its very origins, pointing us back to the Father, after whom every family is named. It similarly evokes future progeny, the generation of which is the primary purpose of the family. In the case of Christ, that progeny is potentially every person throughout human history, who through faith in Him, are all called as adopted children of the same Father.

The Church’s vision of the human family is thus grounded in the nuclear family for a good reason: the family is the context and means intended by God for the flourishing of humanity. God Himself assumed humanity in this context, and whilst He ‘only’ adopted an earthly father, the figure of Joseph speaks powerfully of the more important and fundamental reality that is true of every family. This is the same truth that St Paul is at pains to point out in his letter to the Ephesians, and has been recognised since the early Church Fathers: Fatherhood, properly speaking, is a reality that only belongs to God. God is Father of all because He is creator of all. In the same way that the very existence of every being depends on the supreme Existence, the fatherhood (as expressed in the complementary, generative power of both sexes) of the human person only and ever has any meaning as a reflection of and cooperation with the Divine Fatherhood.

Inserted into the specific strand of Joseph’s ancestry, the Holy Family raises the stakes for all human families. No longer is the family simply the font of earthly life, but it is now joined to the Divine project of Redemption. The human family not only remains a co-operator in the mystery of creation (to paraphrase St John Paul II), participating with God in the creation of human persons: it is now an embodiment of the mystical marriage between Christ and His Church, and its primary task is now to generate children for the Kingdom of God. As Perugino depicts so beautifully, human fatherhood is a task that is given by God, and answerable for to Him alone.

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How St John Paul II placed the family at heart of his papacy

Monday 20th July 2020

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

‘Light, joy and hope’: How St John Paul II placed the family at heart of his papacy

Mgr. Livio Melina

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Karol Wojtyla’s birth. As a priest, bishop and pope, John Paul II’s greatest pastoral concern was undoubtedly the family. Sadly, the centenary of this remarkable saint’s birth has been inevitably muted by the constraints of the Covid situation, but those same constraints have, for many, forced a greater focus on our own families. Mgr Livio Melina recalls the Pope’s words at the first World Meeting of Families. 

“Every family carries a light and every family is a light”, Pope John Paul II said, adding that it was “a light which must illuminate the Church’s path and the future of the world.”

He said those words on Saturday, 8th October, 1994 in St Peter’s Square in the Vatican. He was addressing thousands of families gathered below him for the World Meeting of Families. The piazza, recently drenched by an October downpour, glistened with the light of the candles they carried. No doubt this helped to inspire the pope’s words, which had been “improvised, dictated by the heart and sought in many days of prayer”.

His remarks were not merely an extemporisation, however. Faced with an increasing confusion around the family and “attempts to overturn the family’s meaning, depriving it of its natural reference to matrimony”, the Holy Father did not hesitate to ask this decisive question: “Family, what do you say of yourself?” 

Analogously, the Church had asked herself the same question at start of the Second Vatican Council: ‘Church, what do you say of yourself?’ The answer had been: “I am Lumen Gentium [The Light of the People], the light of the world!” The Church reflects the light of Christ; and the family, as the “domestic church” according to Lumen Gentium n. 11, must therefore also reflect the light of Christ in this world. 

St John Paul II talks to families gathered for a meeting in Rome
The would-be pontiff's parents, Karol and Emilia, with John Paul's eldest brother, Edmund. Photo Archidiecezja Krakowska

John Paul II had always loved the family in an extraordinary way. Having lost his own family early on, he had placed families at the heart of his priestly and episcopal ministry in Krakow. From holidaying in the Tatra mountains with groups of families, to his role as ‘uncle’ (a nickname to protect his identity from the communist authorities) to the Focolare Movement, this special care and concern carried over into his papal ministry. 

As Pope, he convoked the Synod on the Family in 1980, promulgated such important documents as Familiaris consortio, created the Pontifical Council for the Family and the Pontifical Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family Life, and began the World Meeting of Families. “I wish to be remembered as the Pope of the family and of life”, he once confided to a friend. 

Why this great concern for the family? The answer lies in Familiaris consortio n. 17: the family is an “intimate community of life and love… [which] has the mission to guard, reveal and communicate love, and this is a living reflection of and a real sharing in God’s love for humanity and the love of Christ the Lord for the Church His bride”. 

He well knew that “man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it” (Redemptor hominis, n. 10). 

In meditating on the mystery of the family, John Paul II defined human love as a nexus of three fundamental connections, which together guarantee its authenticity according to the Creator’s original intention. 

The first connection is that intimate and intrinsic link between love and life, which was affirmed by Pope Paul VI in a definitive and prophetic manner in his encyclical, Humanae vitae. The authentic environment of love, in which human life can worthily be received and mature, is the family founded on matrimony. Without that generous openness to life, the human love between a man and a woman becomes sterile and exposed to the danger of a hedonistic egoism, which collapses in on itself. “The family is the sanctuary of life”, as John Paul II would later affirm (Evangelium vitae, n. 92).

Second, John Paul II points to the link between love and marriage. Love is not simply a feeling or an impulse, but consists of a firm resolution of the will. In this act of love – in desiring the good of the other person – one freely commits one’s being as a gift to the other, creating a communion of persons in the marital covenant. Temporal fidelity and the social and institutional dimensions of this covenant are not extrinsic factors imposed in order to limit the freedom of love: they are intrinsic exigencies of love’s true nature.

The future St John Paul II (centre of photo) relaxes in the Tatra Mountains

The final connection is that between marriage and family. Matrimony is the sole basis for a family that is capable of safeguarding authentic love and life. When a family is detached from matrimony (understood as a stable union between a man and a woman) the bond between its members becomes very fragile; the only reference point that is left for the family is a subjective search for self-realisation. 

“This is the hour of the family”, both in the Church and in society! On that October evening of 1994, Pope Wojtyla again passionately affirmed his profound conviction: the future of humanity lies with the family. The glimmering lights on the piazza inspired the Pope to say:

“every family carries a light and every family is a light”. For ethical imperatives only follow that which is already given by God’s grace: namely a gift that is present in every family.

This affirmation does not refer to a generic reality, but to a singularly concrete one: “every” family that lives in “every” part of the world. If prophecy is characterised by the enunciation of the little seed of hope for the future that is hidden in the difficulties of the present time, John Paul II did exactly this. “Dictated by the heart” and matured in “many days of prayer”, he pointed to precisely the family as that seed of hope: as every family that is born of love and vivified by the grace of the sacrament.


Mgr Melina served as Professor of Fundamental Moral Theology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family Life for over 30 years, for 10 of which he also served as the Institute’s President.

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Covid-19 crisis from the perspective of providence: A call to creative love

Friday 3rd April 2020

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

Covid-19 crisis from the perspective of providence: A call to creative love

Fr José Granados

In these days of Lent, we re-read the story of Israel’s departure from Egypt, when God delivered them from the scourge of plagues. 

The scene is poignantly brought to life by the epidemic that we are experiencing at the moment. It reminds us that God is no stranger to anything that happens to us. “My times are in your hands”, says the psalmist (Ps 31:15). 

Whoever lives the totality of their life according to faith in the Creator, must also live the Covid-19 crisis according to faith in the Creator.

Why the virus? What are its causes and effects? The biologist and the doctor can tell us something about these, as can the psychologist and the economist. But only faith offers the ultimate horizon that unifies these partial perspectives. The believer does not have all the answers, but knows who does. He knows Him and knows how to invoke Him, to help him live this hour with meaning. Believing in God means that our “why?” can be transformed into “what for?”

“In the programme of the kingdom of God”, St John Paul II said, “suffering is present in the world in order to release love, in order to give birth to works of love towards neighbour” (Salvifici Doloris 30). 

The suffering caused by the virus is also present in order to revive love in ourselves. It is towards this love that providence leads all things. So, whoever believes in providence does not respond with negligence or irresponsibility, but with the intelligence of love.

Jordaens’ 'The Good Samaritan'

We discover how precious are our relationships, which are lived out in the body. This is why this virus is a threat to our communal life. This is why we are afraid to be together, to work together, and why we isolate ourselves. Thus, the virus wounds us at the heart of our humanity, which consists of the call to communion. 

At the same time, we understand the greatness of the good that is threatened. For we experience that we have no life if it is not life together; that we cannot flourish as solitary individuals, but only as members of a family, school, neighbourhood. The virus unmasks the lie of individualism and testifies to the beauty of the common good.

The reawakening to love continues, secondly, because we suffer as our own the suffering and anguish of others. Pain unites us. In a certain sense, we have all been infected by the virus because our community, our city, our nation has been infected. Hard times are on the way for many families, for the elderly, for the most vulnerable, but these sufferings will have the effect of increasing amongst us the works of love carried out for others. The difficulties of having physical contact will require an intelligent love, which will invent new ways of being present. Technology will help us to express that closeness and that affective support which, far from spreading the virus, vaccinates us against it. 

Reawakening to love will also, and thirdly, consist of the discovery of new ways of working together. For the pain of the virus, in addition to that caused by the physical disease, will be the pain of anxiety, of not knowing what to expect or how to get on with the thousand things of everyday life, and the fatigue of remaking plans and of enduring the waiting. An intelligent and creative love will be that of teachers who do not interrupt their educational work and their support for their students; that of parents who create tasks  and games for their children; that of pastors who continue to bring food to their faithful; that of families who inspire and share their creativity with other families.

Finally, this creativity of love will help us discover that love has an inexhaustible source. And so, fourthly, our suffering will reawaken us to love if we turn our gaze to God, who is the source and channel of all love.

The forced isolation caused by the virus is an opportunity for us to delve more deeply into the big question, the “why?”, that lies behind everything. 

The virus, in threatening the life-giving air that we breathe and the presence of those we love, invites us to ask ourselves about the ultimate secret of this very life and love. What is its origin and destiny? This question will lead us to discover the face of

“Let us remember, therefore, that the grace of God continues to act, even when we cannot receive Communion. For at every Mass that a priest says, even if he is alone, we will all be present and God’s grace will touch us. “

the God who wanted to respond to suffering, not with a theory, but with a presence: His suffering with us. For He became flesh, taking on our suffering in order to heal it; and, in the Sacraments of His Body and Blood, He gave us the gift of health.

It is precisely at this time that access to the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, has become difficult. Let us remember, therefore, that the grace of God continues to act, even when we cannot receive Communion. For at every Mass that a priest says, even if he is alone, we will all be present and God’s grace will touch us. Faith in providence will arouse an intelligent love so that the Eucharist continues to be present in our lives. 

We will be able to strengthen our communal prayer, our reading aloud of the Word of God, our family recitation of Sunday Lauds or Vespers, our invocation of Mary in the Rosary…

It has already become clear that many will have to live this Lent fasting from the Eucharist. If, however, this awakens in us a love for the living Bread that comes from Heaven, if it teaches us that we cannot live when deprived of the Eucharist – the medicine of immortality – then this fast will have a saving effect. For in the Eucharist is the resurrected Body of Christ: immune to any virus, and inexhaustible source of our common life. Thus, the threat of the virus will awaken in us not only a concrete love for those who suffer, but a hope for the Love that never ends. The psalmist’s plea will sound anew: “You shall not fear the terror of the night nor the arrow that flies by day, because you have the Lord for your refuge and have made the Most High your stronghold” (Ps 91:5-6:9).

Nothing escapes the providence of God, and God relies on our prudence (which is the intelligence of love) to face the epidemic, supporting each other in a generous and creative fashion.

Fr José Granados is the Superior General of the Disciples of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary